For Jewish cookbook author, Chanukah's about the art of frying

latkes 88 (photo credit: )
latkes 88
(photo credit: )
Some women have a knack for savoring life. Shoshana Barer, author of "The Jewish Maven Cookbook," is that rare combination of glamour girl and domestic goddess. While her background was conventional, adventure was destined to be her life's path. "My mother was from Poland, and Yiddish was my first language," says this graduate of a yeshiva. During the 1970s, she settled in Reno, Nev., and had two daughters. But then her marriage dissolved. Undaunted, she moved her girls to the rugged Big Sky country of Montana, where she lassoed a cowboy, who became her second husband. Believe it or not, he was Jewish. The fact that her chopped liver contains onions fried to a crackling crunch was part of the attraction, along with her high cheekbones, sultry eyes and long dark hair. Among her many talents, Barer is a great cook and loves to entertain. As Chanukah rolls around, she sips champagne while making the crispiest latkes on either side of the Rockies. "I get my fry genes from my mother," says Barer. "She wasn't a good cook, but a great fryer." "Frying is an art," she explains. The temperature of the oil must be just right. Hot enough to sputter, but not so hot that it smokes. Furthermore, the right oil must be chosen. Barer recommends peanut oil. Like a pro, she knows when to flip foods sizzling in oil, so they become brown - not burnt. For that reason, she could be called the high priestess of Chanukah fare, a holiday revolving around a one-day supply of purified oil that defied the odds and lasted eight days. Back in 165 B.C.E., Judah Maccabee and his small band of heroes defeated the Syrian Greek army, restoring the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and regaining religious freedom for Jews. Since then, oil has become a reminder of this miracle and the cooking ingredient of choice during Chanukah's eight days. "Chanukah is my favorite holiday," says Barer, who at 60-something is now a proud grandmother. Throwing a holiday party every December, she invites her family and friends. She decorates her dining table to the hilt with dreidels and gelt - chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil. She places seven menorahs in windows and on tables. When lighting Chanukah candles, Barer designates a menorah for herself and another for her granddaughter. Her daughters and other guests must share the remaining five. "Everyone stands around while I fry latkes, eating them so quickly, I never get a chance to use a platter." After dinner, there's a rush to open presents and clear the table for the dreidel game, which goes on for hours. "I eat a lot of fried foods at Chanukah, because they are tasty, and I love delicious food," Barer says. "Nothing beats french fried potatoes or fried fish." Although latkes are always popular, Barer fries an array of succulent dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. "My family prefers my fried matzahs to lox and bagels or any gourmet breakfast in this world," says Barer, explaining that it was her husband's favorite dish. After 24 years of blissful marriage, he passed away four years ago. "He always liked fried matzah with cream cheese on top. Well, that was fine until one day when he did the unthinkable. He poured maple syrup all over it. I guess being from Montana, he didn't know any better." That's because Big Sky country is famous for pancakes. But Barer admits her fried matzah is delicious with syrup, as it is with bacon - kosher bacon, that is. At holiday luncheons, she often prepares fried herring. "It has a taste like nothing else, so it's worth smelling up the kitchen." The Jewish cooking maven's advice for this problem? Keep the doors and windows open and a fan going. "Just remember, I have more requests from lunch guests for fried herring than for any other dish in my repertoire. I must be doing something right." Because of its texture, rice a la Jewish maven is Barer's signature dish. With generous amounts of sesame seeds and almonds, mushrooms fried in schmaltz and grivenes - chicken skin that's sauteed until nothing's left but chewy bits), there's a lot of heavy crunching involved in eating this delicacy. "I remember a particular Chanukah dinner at my home," says Barer. "I put out a bowl of grivenes. Everyone exclaimed how bad it is for your cholesterol. But when I walked back into my dining room a few minutes later - not a crumb was left. Surprisingly, nobody died the next day, or even got sick." So with all this rich food, how does this attractive woman keep her trim figure? It's not surprising that she watches the size of her portions. After losing her husband, Barer built a log cabin in Montana, where she began reinventing herself again. "I never thought I'd be a writer," she says. "But here I am working on book No. 8. Infusing the mystery-horror genre with humor, Barer created Sammi Mitchel, the beautiful host of the fictitious "Jewish Maven TV Show." She invented this spicy character to heal from her husband's death. Now part of a series of mysteries, Sammi next appears in "The Vessel" due in December. Her first novel includes a luscious Chanukah dinner prepared for a new love interest. Barer's editor said the food sounded so enticing, she urged the author to create "The Jewish Maven Cookbook." (Descriptions of Shoshana Barer's books can be seen at In real life, the Jewish cooking maven has recently started seeing a wonderful man. She claims he'll be the last great romance of her life. But who knows? She's got a lot more love and latkes to sizzle.